Solutions to societal challenges

Researching to expand approaches and contributions to overcoming societal challenges

What do we mean by this?

Complex and transnational problem areas like climate change, health and food security, resource scarcity, or securing our energy supply are of extreme importance when it comes to the functionality of our ecosystems and people's future quality of life worldwide. Societal challenges is the umbrella term for the related areas for action, in which science can contribute expert solutions of particular societal importance as well as courses of action based on impact analyses.

Developing solutions, or partial solutions, and decision-making bases for these highly relevant topics is science's way of making an essential contribution towards sustainable development.

The high expectations of political and social actors for science to address these issues can be seen from the thematic priorities of European and national funding policies. Both the EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020 and the 'Research for Sustainable Development' (FONA) Strategy of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) identify societal challenges that are worthy of research funding. In its 2015 position paper "Grand Societal Challenges as a Topic for Science Policy", the German Council of Science and Humanities underscores science's responsibility to contribute to the identification and management of such challenges.

International political agendas, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the international community in 2015, provide thematic orientation with regard to current societal challenges. These relate, for example, to global poverty, food security, health, education, gender justice, water and sanitation, ecosystem protection, sustainable energy, decent work, and climate change. Societal challenges are characterised by a high degree of complexity, interconnectedness, fuzziness, and diversity of actors involved with heterogeneous interests. They have a high number of variables that need to be taken into account for their identification and management, and affect different societal subsystems as well as the interactions between them.

A science-based contribution to overcoming a societal challenge can consist of analysing the affected systems, developing scenarios, and evaluating possible courses of action. Innovative (partial) solutions to this challenge can be developed in all settings from basic research to application-oriented research, in disciplinary depth and in interdisciplinary breadth.

How could a research organisation implement this?

  • Analyse the current state of research on societal challenges
  • Set agendas, for example through participation in the Science Years or the development of new thematic years
  • Sensitise scientists by informing about current societal challenges and needs, for example through research colloquia, keynote lectures (including other disciplines), or theme days
  • Reward targeted research contributions to societal challenges, for example through research prizes or incentive systems

Practical examples

Fraunhofer research fields

Fraunhofer conducts research in fields relating to societal challenges in order to achieve tangible improvements for mankind. The essence of its research portfolio is formed by widely diverse issue-oriented and problem-driven research questions that are approached in an interdisciplinary and networked manner, with a constant focus on rapid transfer.

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The Helmholtz Association's mission to respond to the grand challenges faced by society

Many of the Helmholtz Association's research topics cut across programmes. Bioenergy, for example, is of particular importance in the contexts of renewable energies and the sustainable bioeconomy. Likewise, energy storage is as much a consideration in the energy transition as it is for mobility. In the third round of programme-oriented funding, the Helmholtz Association has therefore introduced cross-cutting activities and alliances in which programme contributions are bundled into cross-cutting research fields.

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Promotion of interdisciplinary cross-sectional issues in the Leibniz Association


Leibniz Institutes address issues of social, economic, and ecological relevance. Interdisciplinary cross-sectional issues with societal relevance are addressed at the organisational level through the instruments of Leibniz Research Alliances (LFV) and Leibniz ScienceCampi (LWC), and are promoted through Leibniz Competition (SAW).

Leibniz Research Alliances

Leibniz ScienceCampi

Leibniz Competition

Further information

Wissenschaftsrat (2015): "Zum wissenschaftspolitischen Diskurs über Große gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen"
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BMBF Strategy FONA (Research for Sustainability)
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EU Horizon 2020: Societal Challenges 
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United Nations (2015):
Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Sustainable Development Goals)
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Sustainability reporting

DNK criteria

  • 10 Innovation and Product Management

GRI indicators

  • G4-PR1–4